Transamerica (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As much heralded, "edgy" movies go, Transamerica fails to live up to expectations. The final 30 minutes are interesting, funny, and affecting, but that segment represents less than a third of the running time. To get to the parts of the film that work, it is necessary to endure 15 minutes of setup, then an hour of some of the most uninspired road movie tedium in recent history. Road movies often turn into vehicles for lazy screenwriters, and this is no exception. The primary purpose of this prolonged portion of Transamerica isn't to bring the characters closer or to give us insight into their personalities; it's to stretch out the running length so we're left with a motion(less) picture rather than a short.

The big "selling point" for Transamerica is Felicity Huffman, who plays Bree, a pre-operative transsexual about to give up her masculinity. Were it not for the success of Desperate Housewives, in which Huffman has a co-starring role, it's uncertain whether a distributor would have taken a chance on the movie. Huffman's performance is edgy, raw, and carefully contained. Bree is an introvert, not given to grandstanding. She's a buttoned-down conservative who is meticulous about her appearance and grammar, and avoids using curse words. Huffman deserves credit for allowing herself to appear in an unflattering light (in some scenes, she looks garish and ugly), and her awkward mix of male/female mannerisms are on-target. Huffman is very good - good enough that we accept her in the role and believe in the character, and there are times when she carries the film.

Transamerica's premise is simple. Less than two weeks away from the final operation that will complete her transition from a man to a woman, Bree learns that she has a teenage son. Toby (Kevin Zegers), a petty thief, drug user and sometimes male prostitute, is in a New York jail when he calls his father. His mother is dead and there's no one else to bail him out. Bree's first instinct is to disavow the existence of the boy, but when her therapist (Elizabeth Peña) refuses to sign a consent form for the sex-change operation until there is closure in this area, Bree is forced to fly to New York to encounter her offspring. Pretending to be a church do-gooder, she meets Toby and agrees to help him fulfill his dream of becoming a porn actor by driving him to Los Angeles. Along the way, between encounters with assorted oddballs and other lonely souls, they fitfully bond - all without his knowing that he's in the green station wagon with his father.

Things come to a head in Phoenix, when the unlikely pair ends up at the estate owned by Bree's parents. We meet her overwrought mother (Fionnula Flanagan), earthy father (Burt Young), and freespirit of a sister (Carrie Preston). It's during the Phoenix scenes that Transamerica finds its footing after drifting aimlessly for more than an hour. During this part of the film, director Duncan Tucker offers an effective blend of bittersweet comedy and modulated pathos. Ultimately, however, there's a feeling that it may be too little, too late.

One of the most disappointing things about Transamerica is that rather than showing Bree's mechanisms for coping with everyday life, it places her in the unreality of a road trip. Her relationship with Toby is developed unevenly during the course of this journey. By the time they reach Phoenix, the movie wants us to believe that they're closer than what has been shown. Then there's the elephant in the room - the manufactured drama and tension of when Bree is going to tell her son the truth.

As Toby, Kevin Zegars provides a standard "sullen teenager" performance. He's a rebel with a cause, although he rarely shows much in the way of emotion. One suspects that a more accomplished actor would have added some punch to the Bree/Toby scenes that comprise a majority of the running time. Finonnula Flanagan is unforgivably over-the-top as Elizabeth, Bree's mother. "Caricature" is almost too tame a word. Burt Young (forever known as Rocky's brother-in-law) fares better as Murray, although one can't discern any reason why he would sacrifice a lifetime to Elizabeth's company. A breath of fresh air comes from Carrie Preston, as the irrepressible Sydney. She's down-to-earth, funny, and energetic.

One wants to give credit to writer/director Tucker for making an honest movie about the tribulations of a transgendered individual, but the film is flawed dramatically, with the inert road trip segment doing too little to advance character development and interaction. Huffman's performance redeems parts of the movie but, until the final 30 minutes, Transamerica too often feels like a journey to nowhere.

Transamerica (United States, 2005)

Director: Duncan Tucker
Cast: Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Elizabeth Peña, Fionnula Flanagan, Burt Young, Carrie Preston, Graham Greene
Screenplay: Duncan Tucker
Cinematography: Stephen Kazmierski
Music: David Mansfield
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2006-01-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1